The Other Urgent Public Health Issue in California

Ashley Quic

Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash

Caption: Spot fire that has jumped the road as firefighters try to contain it. 


Since January of this year, record-breaking wildfires have burned 4.1 million acres (as of October 12) along California, killing more than 30 people, leaving thousands homeless, and unleashing another health emergency. 


While some cities were not directly threatened by fires burning up their parks and houses, smoke stretched and brought health danger to the entire state. Cities like Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, were in the top 10 list for worst air quality in the world, making breathing the air like smoking a pack of e-cigarettes in a day.


When asked ‘How big of a threat do you think wildfires and smoke are to your health?’ senior Amalia Perez answered, “I feel like since I don’t really live near any wildfires, it doesn’t affect my health as much. But I do feel that overall wildfires and smoke do pose a serious risk to a person’s health.”


Even if some aren’t close to wildfires or even after the firefighters put out all the fires, the harmful health impact from the dirty air still remains. According to EPA’s Wildfire Smoke A Guide For Public Health Officials, wildfire smoke is a mixture of gasses and micro millimeter-sized particles from the material burned in the fire, including ozone, carbon monoxide & dioxide, nitrogen oxides, water vapor, and particulate matter. 


“The reason we’re concerned about these really small particles is not only are they the ones that stay suspended in air but they’re also the ones that can get deeper into the lungs and cause more systemic health effects,” said Colleen Reid, PhD, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder.


Right away these substances can cause watery eyes, a cough, irritated lungs, scratchy throat and even trouble breathings. When these pollutants left behind by wildfire smoke are deep into the lungs and cross into the bloodstream, they can cause respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. Substances can also cause additional risk for people who already have respiratory or cardiovascular problems leading them to have heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks, and respiratory distress.


“Individuals like me who were born with asthma and an obstructed nostril, can’t breathe very well on a daily basis,” said Romario Linares, a senior. “The wildfires make it harder for us to breathe since it’s essentially pollution and the air quality gets worse with all the smoke”.


With the record-breaking heatwaves across California, the air becomes motionless and traps all the substances and pollutants. Heatwaves can also cause dry grounds providing more fuel for wildfires to start up causing fires to burn up one after another making more and more smoke. The smoke becomes very hard to avoid outdoors and indoors as well.


The CDPH recommends staying indoors when air pollution is high and dangerous. Additionally, it is important to consider COVID-19 along with wildfire smoke because it could make people more prone to lung infections which is in direct relation with COVID-19. Unhealthy air quality can put individuals at more of a risk of getting the virus.


“In a closed space for Covid, what we would say is we don’t want the indoor air concentrations in the confined space to build up, so we want to bring in as much outside air” as possible, Edward Avol, a professor of preventive medicine at USC, told Vox. “In a wildfire situation, we don’t want the outside smoke to get in so we want to reduce the amount of outside air we’re bringing in. So they’re exactly opposite here.”


Both COVID-19 and the CAL Fires, are screaming for a call to action in this urgent health crisis across the state.